It was the 1950’s. Our family belonged to a group of educated suburbanites who went to church every week and believed Ozzie and Harriet were our neighbors. Crime was something that happened in the city and people of a ‘different cloth’ rarely crossed our path.
I learned to see myself as better than others and came to define our family and the place we lived as somehow superior. In our neighborhood, people followed the rules – or tried to. Never mind the man who had a heart attack two blocks from home in his girlfriend’s bed or the mother who drove the family car into the garage and closed the door with the engine running. And there was the pastor who favored altar boys and the football coach who slept with cheerleaders. Those were the exceptions. We were different. Our cloth was of a finer grade.
As a child of that culture, I learned to play the ‘judgment game,’ a flawed and cruel custom in which I measured others by the yardstick of my own self-worth. It was easy to play and I’d catch myself practicing whenever I was in the presence of others. On the job, in public, at church, I’d search for comparisons; people who were younger, older, fatter, thinner, smarter, or wealthier. The options were endless and someone always came up the loser.
While my parents served on church committees, I served myself. They taught me to sit in the front pew. I felt safer in the back. From there I could critique the rest of the congregation and give at a distance – checks in the offering plate, groceries for the food pantry – and never touch anyone who was different. Over the years, the burden of these beliefs weighed heavily on my life and I turned inward, pulling my finely woven cloth firmly around me to shut out the world and other hurting people.
God knew I needed a large dose of humility, the kind you swallow when you realize you’re no better than anyone else. So, he called me to ministry at the county jail where I was asked to teach a journaling class. There, in a tiny barber-shop-turned-classroom, I met the women who would change my life forever.
We gathered on Wednesday nights, a mismatched group of strangers crammed into a room just big enough to seat twelve around a table. I handed out paper and pencils to women dressed in orange who lived in suburban mansions, working class row houses and the ghetto. Over the past six years, there have been hundreds of them – mothers, daughters, sisters, and grandmothers. They represent every race, religion and ethnic group in our community.
Any ideas I had about being different have been put to rest. The jail is a great equalizer and the barbershop a melting pot. In that room, no one really cares which neighborhood you come from or the cut of your cloth. We are simply women and the boundaries that separate us have become less defined, ragged, like edges of a torn piece of fabric that you can never quite piece back together.
I came to the jail to be a teacher, but God had other plans. He wanted me to learn. And my instructors are women of a ‘different cloth,’ women who have opened their hearts to teach me about life, faith, and the meaning of friendship.